As the news media business evolves, the Canadian Association of Journalists has started a discussion on whether to try and protect people that are not accustomed to speaking with reporters.
CAJ released a paper on Feb. 10 questioning the safety of interview sources based on current self-identification methods used by journalists.
The focus is on “people for whom if private information becomes public, they could be hurt because they don’t have any protection against that,” said Meredith Levine, a Western University professor in the Faculty of Information and Media studies.
Levine is a member of the CAJ’s ethics advisory committee as well as one of the authors of “On the record: Is it really informed consent without discussion of consequences?”
Journalists are currently legally only required to provide their name and the name of their employer.
These individuals might not realize the information they provide to journalists will eventually be available to employers and family members to read, said Levine.
She added these people might not understand how the information they provide to journalists can lead to negative consequences for them once it’s published.
A situation like this occurred at Western when a first-year student talked to one of the school’s journalism students about his experience with depression for a story.
“Then four years later they were applying for a job and any time a potential employer Googled them, that’s what came up. The very first thing,” she said.
Levine said negative consequences could range from job loss, harmed relationships and the inability to qualify for insurance.
The new standard puts the responsibility on journalists to point out consequences prior to an interview so sources know what they’re getting into.
“We shouldn’t be robbing them of their autonomy and their (ability) to make an informed decision by withholding information,” said Levine.
“It doesn’t have to be a bureaucratic form signing. Oral consent recorded at the top of an interview, 30 seconds or a minute going over these things, it a good place to start,” she said.
However, implementing this new standard may be difficult as many seasoned journalists rarely come across a situation like that and don’t think it’s necessary with every interview.
“That conversation, is it something that needs to happen all the time? Absolutely not,” said Teri Picoskie, a Humber graduate who currently works at the Hamilton Spectator.
“There is no one size fits all answer. It all depends on the circumstances,” said Mike Katrycz, news director for CHCH-TV.
Katrycz said when it comes to television the video cameras make a big difference. When people see all the branded broadcast equipment they understand that they are going to be quoted, he said.
Many journalists have difficulty with the idea of helping a source anticipate what these negative consequences may be.
“That’s making journalists responsible for a lot. I mean that’s really over and above and sort of beyond the standards that we’re currently held to right now,” said Pecoskie.
Levine points out in the paper that it’s not currently known exactly how often and to what extent negative consequences occur to interview sources after participating in media stories.
However, she adds “there is research out there that indicates that disclosure of personal information by the media has been a factor in some suicides.”
At Humber, the interviewing methods that are taught to students replicate how the industry works, said Mike Karapita, one of the two program coordinators for Humber’s Print and Broadcast Journalism programs.
“We make sure when we are training journalists at Humber that they understand that before anything gets published, it should be reviewed, and questioned and picked apart,” said Karapita.
While Karapita sees CAJ’s suggestion as a reasonable approach, he did express concern that this could create more roadblocks to someone agreeing to participate in an interview.
Karapita adds people should be given more credit for their understanding.
“I think most people understand that if you speak to a reporter, what you say is going to end up being published, printed or produced somewhere,” he said.
He reminds people a journalist’s most important asset is their reputation. Therefore, journalists should always act with decency and professionalism, he said.
Journalists need to build up a record of their name as a straight shooter and not someone that burns sources or recklessly ruin people’s lives, said Karapita.